Book No 13 (2018) : Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

eleanor oliphantEleanor Oliphant is, by all accounts, a bit of a misfit. She doesn’t conform to the social norms her colleagues expect, often speaking her mind seemingly without considering the effect her unbridled honesty might have. Eleanor doesn’t really join in, spending every weekend alone, comforted only by a couple of bottles of vodka which she buys from her local corner shop. Sometimes when she speaks, her voice is croaky because it is so long since she last had a conversation with anyone. If her phone rings, it makes her jump.

But she’s certainly not daft. Eleanor has a university degree in Classics, can finish the crossword in the ‘Telegraph’, has held down a job for 9 years, watches BBC4 documentaries and reads books.

Life is plodding along uneventfully for Eleanor until a series of events come together to make her start to question, well, whether she is completely fine. The reader of course, knows this dysfunctional young woman is far from fine. Very early on we sense the undercurrents in Eleanor’s life – her tense relationship with ‘Mummy’ to whom she only speaks once a week by phone, the involvement of social care professionals, scars on her face. A traumatic past is hinted at. Eleanor has secrets to hide.

To start with I was intrigued and amused by this book, as Eleanor’s odd naivety provides an ideal opportunity for comedy. But I began to feel more and more uncomfortable when I realised that very often Eleanor was the butt of the jokes; I wasn’t laughing near her, I was laughing at her.

My unease began to grow as the inconsistencies in Eleanor’s character and behaviour began to emerge: even though she is widely in touch with the world via papers, magazines and TV, she speaks in an oddly stilted way which is totally at odds with someone highly educated. Eleanor orders a Magners and continues to refer to it as ‘Magners drink’, despite the fact that the label clearly says ‘Irish Cider’. She doesn’t know what a laptop is called and refers to dancing as ‘freeform jigging’. Eleanor just didn’t make sense, I couldn’t reconcile these inconsistencies in the author’s development of her character, and I got crosser and crosser. Although I finished the book, I felt it was over-long, contrived and based upon a highly improbable central character.

Eleanor Oliphant is due to appear as a film, produced by Reese Witherspoon. Maybe a cinematic interpretation of the book will be less reliant upon the finer details, and so more forgiving of its failings. But as far is the book is concerned, I am at odds (again) with the Sunday Times, Costa Book Awards, BBC R4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ and a whole host of other enthusiastic admirers. ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine‘ feels like a lost opportunity to examine the plight of the lonely in our society.

 

 

Book No 8 (2015) : The Night Guest

Night guestFrom my childhood, I remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where the vain emperor is conned into parading the streets wearing a suit of clothes which is invisible to anyone either unfit for office, or ‘unusually stupid’. Of course, the ruler is actually stark, bollock naked and only one little boy speaks up, primarily because he is too young to understand the significance of not keeping up the charade. Reading ‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane reminded me of the story. Only, I am not sure if I am the child in the crowd or an idiot! As with other books I have found which are preceded by pages of plaudits and praise (there are 21 reviews in the front of this paperback), I wonder if a couple of critics thought it was great, then everyone else joined in so they didn’t look daft!

Ruth is an elderly widow living alone in a house by the sea, with just her two cats for company. Her two grown-up sons speak to her infrequently by phone; their mother seems to be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ At night, Ruth senses a tiger prowling around in her house. Being aware of Ruth’s obviously precarious grip on reality, the reader should be pleased when a government carer named Frida arrives to assist Ruth in her own home. But in fact, Frida is rather a dodgy character, and I was suspicious of her from the outset. Sure enough, as Ruth depends more and more upon Frida, the carer’s behaviour and actions become increasingly sinister.

As a narrator, Ruth is unreliable. Her short-term memory is clearly fading (she forgets to wash her hair) but her recollections of her youth in Fiji are more vivid. She is lonely and isolated, things get confused in her mind and these are presented in well-crafted prose: the author drops subtle hints like a crime thriller writer. I was able to pick up on the inferences and deduce what was actually happening but for me, the writing totally lacked tension. The conclusion of the story was not a psychological cliff-hanger, it was unsurprising. The book hasn’t haunted me. It ‘stalked the mind’ of Sebastian Shakespeare from The Tatler; it just followed me around for a bit. More of a homeless moggy than an awesome big cat.

As you will have figured, I just didn’t understand the hype surrounding this debut novel. As my teenager would say; ‘meh’. Just as Ruth’s tiger is elusive and only shows up at night, so the charms of ‘The Night Guest’ remained largely hidden to me. Don’t trust me on this one; I am obviously totally unfit for the office of amateur blogger!